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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Milwaukee Harbor Project To Install Trash-Eating Device To Keep Lake Michigan Cleaner

Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore
Milwaukee could be getting a googly-eyed Mr. Trash Wheel, shown here in a harbor in Baltimore, Md., to catch floating garbage before it reaches Lake Michigan. Mr. Trash Wheel is one model being considered.

People working to make Milwaukee’s harbor cleaner plan to install a trash interceptor in the Kinnickinnic River. The idea is to catch floating trash before it reaches Lake Michigan. And the group Harbor District, Inc., won a federal grant to bring the project to life.

We recently met Harbor District’s Natural Environment Program Manager Aaron Zeleske as close to the future home of the trash interceptor as we can get – a fence blocks our path and trees and overgrown bushes block the view.

“We’re out here on the Kinnickinnic River just south of Becher Street, we’re on the west side ... It’s the future home of our trash collector," he explains.     

Credit Susan Bence
The trash interceptor will be installed along the west shore (left side) of the Kinnickinnic River on this side of the bridge.

The harbor district is in a state of evolution — from a bleak, forbidding corridor to a place people want to work and recreate.

You see an example just downstream from the trash project site where a 6-acre gleaming commercial project is taking shape. A large utility contractor will be making its corporate home where the Kinnickinnic curves east.

READ: What Do Residents Want For Milwaukee's Harbor District?

As for the trash diverter site, Zeleske says there’ nothing to see — yet. The project is very much in the design phase, including how it will incorporate solar power.

“It will be sort of docked. It’s in the stream. It’ll be docked right on the shoreline. And this is gonna be 30-40 feet long. It's gonna be a big conveyer belt with a dumpster on land that will deposit the trash up on land, where the dumpster can be taken away. There will be some in-stream structures, probably some sort of floating booms that will funnel the trash into the machine,” Zeleske says.

Credit Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore
While the trash diverter is very much in the design phase, one model being considered is Baltimore’s Mr. Trash Wheels. Baltimore's harbor has three Mr. Trash Wheels, with one more on the way.

One model being considered is at work in the harbor in Baltimore, Md.

“The poster child — Mr. Trash Wheel in Baltimore was one of the first ones done. He’s someone the organization has been talking to for a few years. We’ve also recently been talking with the company that built the Lynyrd Skymmr,” Zeleske says.

That’s the vessel Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District operates in Milwaukee’s harbor area. Zeleske says while it does a bang-up job, the skimmer concentrates on picking up trash after storms.

Credit Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District
Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District's Lynyrd Skymmr hard at work cleaning up trash, which it mainly does after storms.

“The company that built the Lynyrd Skymmr, Aquarius, who’s from Wisconsin, they’re very excited about the project,"  Zeleske says. "So, as get this grant finalized and kind of move into implementing it we’re gonna have a process where we get bids from different companies and slightly different designs and figure out what’s gonna work the best.”

Zeleske says the permanent structure Harbor District Inc., settles on will collect all the trash that flows down the Kinnickinnic River 24-hours a day, adding up to as much as 75 tons of trash a year that won't enter Lake Michigan.

Its ecosystem is already buffeted by invasive species and climate change.

Zeleske says reducing pollution from entering the basin is a step in the right direction.

The EPA contributed nearly $500,000 to the project, touted as the first-ever Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Trash Free Waters grant.

Credit Susan Bence
Aaron Zeleske, Harbor District Inc.'s natural environment program manager, says a trash-eating device could be installed in early 2022.

If you’re eager to see if the Kinnickinnic design turns out to be a giant wheel, conveyer or something else, Zeleske hopes you are also patient.

“We want a contract for designing and building this thing in the fall, have it all figured out by the end of the year and probably realistically building it next year and installing it early in 2022,” Zeleske explains.

By then he hopes there will be good spots for you to see the system at work.

"We want this thing to clean the river, but we also want it to catalyze this whole space. So we want to have public access,” Zeleske says.

That’s another project Zeleske is working on, and a story for another day.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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